Together, Skelton and Manning took quite a risk. They priced the regular clientele out the door. They threw their hat into the terribly crowded and competitive "eclectic bistro" ring. They stocked their kitchen with expensive and very perishable ingredients. On top of that, they did it all within a cavernous, converted music club with no parking lot, located along a nondescript stretch of lower Broad Street. It was a pretty ballsy move. And it worked. There are a couple of things that they can improve upon, but Sweetwater has completed a successful transformation from a hip bar with food to a damned good restaurant with a hip bar.
The interior is attractive in a Biedermeier meets the Salvation Army way. The staff is congenial, with owner Skelton leading the way on the floor. The wine list is brief but charged with some excellent choices. And two and a half months ago, well-seasoned kitchen veteran Greg Waddell took over from Manning as chef. Waddell has cooked in California, Japan and New York, and recently owned a restaurant in North Carolina.
The key to the restaurant's success is the quality and variety of the cooking. The menu changes every couple of weeks so that the chef can continually draw on a few seasonal ingredients that pique his curiosity. He deftly experiments with his "ingredients of the week" to showcase their particular flavors and textures in several settings. Consequently, the courses have an appealing, sort of conversational thread running through them. During our visits, sweet and crisp haricot verts showed up in the Seared Scallop appetizer ($8.95), the Micro Green Salad with taleggio and macadamia nuts ($5.95), the Garlic Roasted Swordfish ($22.95) and the Seared Beef Tenderloin ($23.95). In addition to these fine beans, patty-pan squash, snow-pea shoots and yellow peppers also figured highly on the menu. The Yellow Pepper, Amaranth and Crab Soup ($4.95) delivered a superb blend of rich, salty and piquant flavors that slowly evaporated from the palate. The yellow pepper and leek basquaise that topped the Grilled Pork Chop ($21.95) was at once subtle and striking. Waddell has a wonderful touch with fish. Both the swordfish and the Pan Seared Salmon ($20.95) were remarkably crispy on the outside edges, while remaining medium rare and moist on the interior.
The only thing I missed and this is a small criticism, to be sure was a contrasting flavor to balance the "top end" of the entrees I sampled. The lighter, herbal flavors of the sauces were consistently efficient in underscoring the meats. There seemed to be little working on top of the fleshy flavors, though. Two of the appetizers I tried exhibited this balance well. The Seared Foie Gras with grilled mangos and aged balsamic vinegar ($10.95) and the Pan Roasted Quail with blackberry and sage risotto ($8.50) both had a distinct beginning, middle and end with respect to contrasting flavors. I didn't taste an end with the entrees. This is a minor critique, however, in view of the excellence of the beginnings and middles.
The folks at Sweetwater have done something impressive. Not only have they made a risky about face and entered into a very competitive niche of restaurant markets, but also they have excelled in that market within just two years. They are serving some of the most engaging food available in Richmond and doing so in a unique atmosphere. There is a lot of buzz about Sweetwater, and I believe it is well deserved. S
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